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The Tuesday Interview | I wrote to tell of others’ sufferings. It helped me get through jail: Sudha Bharadwaj

Sudha Bharadwaj, a trade unionist, activist, and lawyer who lived and worked in Chhattisgarh for over three decades, is an active member of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakrta Committee).

She was among the activists arrested on August 28, 2018, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in the contentious Bhima Koregaon case. A special NIA Court granted her bail on December 8, 2021. Sitting in the Yerawada jail in Pune, she penned her observations of the women prisoners, which are now out in the form of a book, From Phansi Yard.

“The only advantage of people like us going to jail is that at least we can bring out some of our experience. We can articulate it. Those who are suffering mostly can’t even articulate. So, hopefully, it will bring some attention to these issues,” says Sudha in a tete-e-tete with DH’s Shree D N about the book and beyond. Excerpts:

What inspired you to write this book?

Once I overcame the shock after the arrest, I realised I was luckier than most other women prisoners in Yerawada. I had my daughter, my friends, and union people. I, as a lawyer, could understand what was happening. Many people were far less privileged and much more miserable than I was. Their families had abandoned many. They had no clue about any form of legal help. Nobody came to meet them.

That is when I started admiring how they were coping with that situation. There was overcrowding, indignancy, and uncertainty about your future. People were able to cope in such situations, too. They made friends inside the jail and helped each other. Their resilience inspired me. It was also to make sense of where I was and what was happening around me. It gave me something to do. It helped me get through jail life.

Yerawada was one of the better jails. Even there, you see many problems. If you can summarise critical issues…

Overcrowding is a very basic issue. It means the lack of amenities, continuous queues and quarrels for the existing amenities, and the quick spreading of illnesses.

Another thing lacking is proper legal aid. For those left on their own with no family support, particularly for women prisoners, the quality of legal aid is extremely poor. Many are illiterate or do not know the Marathi language. So they can’t read their own chargesheets.

The third thing is counselling and psychological health support. Only those whom the jail staff cannot control are referred to the psychiatrists, and normal issues like depression, not eating, inability to cope with situations, etc. are not addressed. A big part of rehabilitation is dealing with what they think about themselves. Actual rehabilitation comes next. So these are the main issues.

You spoke about the need for counselling. Do religious and spiritual programmes conducted by NGOs in jail help?

When they don’t have a family or a future to look forward to, particularly poor convicted women, don’t rely on the courts to get them bail. They get some remission to work in the field or a factory. So, for many, the spiritual thing may not be a solution, but it is helpful. Interestingly, people are highly secular. Even Hindus will fast (during Ramadan), and everybody will go for Ganapathi celebrations. Everybody will eat Christmas cake. For them, it’s like any God will do: just get me out of here!

Were women readily talking about themselves with you?

These sketches are of the women from Yerawada alone. Our interactions were limited. When we went to court, we would meet others in the van. Waiting for visitors or sitting in the court lockup together, talking among ourselves… such several small encounters with particular persons over a period of time, watching them and understanding them as a personality helped me write this. People don’t readily open up about the case; they don’t like being asked about their case. Once you find somebody who’s sympathetic and open to you, over time, you open up. Interactions were much closer in Byculla jail, but I became a lawyer. It was not ethical to write about them. So, I just stopped writing.

You have written about many women. Whose story moved you the most?

Many stories are moving and personal. But if I can pick one, there was this lady who always looked bitter. She entered jail when her child was four days old after hitting her drunkard husband on the head when he assaulted her elder daughter.

Everybody would scold her and tell her she should love her child more. I used to think that this woman had never received any love. Where is she going to give the love that she herself never got? It was really sad to see. But in her case, her mother-in-law allowed her daughter to go and testify in court. We heard she returned happy from the court and told everyone about this. So there were cases like this. Yes, she committed murder, but is she a criminal? I think we need to look beyond that crime.

Any challenges in writing this book?

I obviously couldn’t do any research. That is why I can’t even say that it’s a completely accurate story about the person. I am not claiming to give a complete story. I would have done more research if I had written that outside the jail. But because I had otherwise been dealing as a lawyer and a social activist, it gave me a much deeper understanding of things. It was like very immersive research. It was an experience.

What is your take on skill development programmes conducted inside the jail?

It would be very important. But it’s not paid attention to. Yerawada has convicts who will stay for a long time. It has skill training programmes — mehndi, beauty parlour work, housekeeping, etc. are taught. I remember some laughing and saying, “Huh, you’re teaching us to clean houses when that’s all we have done all our lives.”

They might get a job in a mall or a restaurant. However, I found that those offering training never followed up with actual jobs. Ultimately, when you come out of jail, there will be a stigma; you won’t get a job easily. Training must be something that will help them get jobs. NGOs that come and do those trainings should follow up until they get a job.

What role do NGOs play in jail? Can they be more constructive?

Many things are done as a formality, not with concern and consistency. One role social workers from NGOs or the government play is to keep contact between women and their families. This has to be done with much greater empathy and consistency. Some of them are helpful. But they are bogged down half the time by the demand to write reports and fill out forms. They are busy doing that work rather than interacting with the prisoners and their families or thinking about their rehabilitation.

Is there enough advocacy happening in society, in policy circles, and among politicians to raise awareness and improve the conditions of women in jail?

It’s not enough. Formally, the name has changed from prisons to correctional services, but the staff is not allotted to carry out the correction; the staff only lock and count people and put them in line.

So, in practice, it doesn’t become a reformatory institution as it should be. It’s like we are throwing out the kachchra from society, dumping it in the jail and forgetting about it. They are not kachchra; they are human beings. They will come back into the society. They need to come back. This attitude has to change. We need to know and understand much more about what happens in jail.There is a saying that if you want to know a civilisation, look in its jails. Jails are full of poor people, Dalits, minorities etc. Trans people suffer a lot in jail, right from the categorisation of gender, and to which jail you are going to send them. This needs reform.

What do you think about the status of children in jails?

Children are the freest in jail. Everybody loves them and takes care of them. Even the staff have a soft corner for them. They have special diets.

When they become a little older, between four and six, they are usually taken by a teacher to a play school just outside the gate of the jail. So they’re not in jail all the time. But one major thing is that they are, after all, with their mothers. Of course, being with the mother is very important for children. Many have nowhere to go as well, so probably it’s the best. But sometimes, those mothers are not able to look after them.

(Published 16 October 2023, 19:56 IST)

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